Winning Play: How Karlsson creates space for Sharks’ power play entries

By some measures, Erik Karlsson is the most impactful 5-on-5 defenseman of his generation.

In his first contest back after a two-game suspension, Karlsson certainly made his presence felt in those situations, notching a goal and two primary assists at 5-on-5 in the San Jose Sharks’ 7-4 rout of the Edmonton Oilers.

But beyond counting stats, it also became clear during Karlsson’s absence how much the Sharks missed him on the power play, especially in terms of zone entries.

When Karlsson wasn’t on the ice at 5-on-4 against Arizona, Anaheim and Edmonton, San Jose carried the puck in on just 17 of their 29 zone entries (58.6 percent). With Karlsson on the ice, the Sharks carried in on five of their six zone entries (83.3 percent).

This is admittedly a small sample size, but the numbers jibe with Karlsson’s skill-set, which he flashed on the man advantage all afternoon.

Karlsson can consistently beat the penalty kill’s first forechecker with his explosive first step, speed and ability to change direction on a dime. Beating the first layer opens up offensive options and puts the penalty kill on its heels.

Also important here was Karlsson pulling Kyle Brodziak (28) to the far lane. This opened the middle of the neutral zone for Tomas Hertl (48) to gain speed and carry in.

On the other hand, the Oilers’ penalty kill had far less respect for Brent Burns (88) breaking out. This is no knock on Burns, who is more naturally suited to be a power play triggerman as opposed to a quarterback.

Tobias Rieder (22) prevented Burns from building speed, forcing him to find Joe Pavelski (8). The slower Pavelski wasn’t in full stride when he received the pass, making him a target for Zack Kassian (44). Pavelski reacted with a pass that Kevin Labanc (62) couldn’t handle. Rieder then pressured Burns into an errant weak side pass.

But then Karlsson jumped on. With help from a soft Timo Meier (28) pick on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93), he blew by the first PK layer ... then the second to gain the zone ... then drew three Edmonton killers toward him before dropping the puck back to Joe Thornton (19), who now had a wealth of time and space to operate.

Karlsson’s puck poise was on full display here, as this one-man breakout machine stayed even-keeled amidst a sea of opposing sticks.

But when we talk about Karlsson as a one-man breakout, it’s important to re-emphasize that it’s not just about playing “hero ball.” Karlsson’s hockey IQ — his spatial awareness — allows him to create soft spots for his teammates even at less than full speed, like how he lured Rieder toward him here to open up the middle for an easy Burns entry.

It’s a casual play for Karlsson, but rife with deception: He slowed to give Rieder a chance to close on him, staying calm with the puck. He looked intently toward Thornton standing at the far side. And as Rieder committed, Karlsson nonchalantly dropped it the other way.

Besides the fact that none of these brilliant plays led to goals, it’s also interesting to note how Karlsson deceived by changing skating speeds: In the first clip, it’s an explosive step then sudden stop; in the second clip, it’s top speed; and here, it’s almost a crawl.

It’s like facing an ace pitcher who masterfully mixes speeds: How can a penalty killer be ready for Karlsson when he has no idea what’s coming?